When Sunflower Electric Power Corp.'s Jeannine Bloss found herself facing a potential transplant due to her genetic kidney disorder, her doctor advised her to start the process early for finding a kidney donor: “Get the word out to everyone you can, because you never know who might be willing to help."
The administrative assistant went on the waiting list for a new kidney, beginning a search for a compatible donor amid a major national organ shortage. When family and friends didn't match, she leaned on her doctor's advice and turned to her workplace family at the generation and transmission cooperative based in Hays, Kansas.
With permission from the co-op's human resources department, Bloss sent an email to her colleagues in July 2019 that “explained what was happening, and I think Cindy replied right away," said Bloss, referring to Cindy Hertel, the co-op's communications manager.
The two women were cordial colleagues, having seen each other at various work functions. “We were friendly, but it's not like we texted each other—like we do now," Hertel said.
Hertel, 60, came forward as a potential donor, underwent testing that fall and was approved the following year. The donation process turned out to be more complicated than they expected. The women weren't a direct match but were able to proceed with the surgery through a paired kidney exchange program where Hertel's kidney went to another patient, making Bloss eligible to receive a kidney from a compatible donor.
Both women underwent several batteries of tests at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, a four-hour drive. They traveled together for the final testing, and “got to know each other. I now consider Cindy a close friend," Bloss said.
Surgeries in April 2023 for donor and recipient were successful. Hertel was out a few weeks, and Bloss, 57, returned to work last month.
Hertel drew on her personal experience with kidney disease in stepping up to help. Her father underwent kidney dialysis for six years before the disease eventually contributed to his death.
Bloss learned in her mid-30s that she has polycystic kidney disease, in which fluid-filled cysts grow on and enlarge the organs. She went on dialysis in 2021 until her transplant two years later.
Paired exchanges like the one Bloss and Hertel participated in make transplants possible for more people and have become more common in recent years, according to the American Kidney Fund. Bloss and Hertel were part of a chain of eight surgeries and four transplants.
“They match you up and try to get a long chain going," Hertel said. “The record at KU Med was 10, and the cool part about our chain is that we are all women. How's that for girl power?"
More than 105,000 people are on the waiting list for transplant organs in the United States, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, with more than 88,650 needing a new kidney.
Of Sunflower's 420 employees, five people, including Hertel, disclosed to Bloss they had expressed an interest in becoming donors. There might have been more, she said, but potential candidates are kept anonymous.
“Just having all those people respond and trying to give their kidney for me was, you know, the most wonderful thing," Bloss said. “We take care of each other, and I felt like I wasn't fighting it alone. And the fact that my coworkers were willing to look at surgery so I could be healthy is a miracle."